On International Women’s Day, Diplomatic Courier is honored to publish “Tajik Hope: Reflections on Engaging Women in Kapisa Province” by Naheed Vadsaria.
Despite over a decade of calls for women’s empowerment in post-Taliban Afghanistan (and massive international investments in causes for the same), the vast majority of females across the country have not yet become active players in sociopolitical movements on any notable scale. This lack of tangible progress is disappointing to the western coalition and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), and is antithetical to teachings of the Quran identified by the author.
Written by a sociological researcher working in support of international Coalition Forces, these vignettes illuminate subtleties of the nuanced hierarchies that direct life at the level of the Afghan village. This collection of linked case studies illustrates the applied bias that many westerners, including experienced sociological practitioners, have commonly held in their initial approaches to Afghan issues over the past decade. Specifically, these studies provide insight to social contracts of ethnic Tajik women and their communities, which make up the country’s second largest ethnic group.
The issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan has historically been an incendiary topic, with cases few and far between garnering public attention. Those that do become topics of conversation tend to do so through media campaigns that do not always provide comprehensive context of the circumstances. Although cases of gender based violence are widespread and underreported, there is a shifting balance in statistics that reflect the quality of life that more Afghan women feel that might reasonably expect in the future, as well as a recognition of the skills necessary to achieve an improved standard of living.
A comprehensive 2012 opinion survey by the Asia Foundation states that nearly one third of respondents identified lack of education and/or illiteracy as the biggest problem faced by women, followed by a lack of job opportunities. Somewhat surprisingly, less than ten percent identified either a lack of women’s rights or domestic violence as the biggest obstacle. This being said, it is useful to remember that it is not necessarily realistic – or appropriate – to expect that the people of Afghanistan will embrace women’s rights and suffrage to western standards in as little as twelve years since western intervention and the ousting of the Taliban.
As demonstrated in these case studies, Afghan women require the support of their men as well as the continued backing of the international community to cement their roles as stakeholders in transitional governance processes and broader development initiatives. It is necessary to have male support for even the most basic efforts. This includes instances in which convening a meeting requires the provision of a male family member to chaperone a woman outside of her home, even if only a child. In these circumstances, men must act as the voice of logic and lead by example in allowing their female relatives to participate in the new Afghan civil society, as primary decision making power still resides with the male head of the house. There must be vocal support and calls for female participation in public life in Afghanistan, as in the case of former Governor of Bamyan, Dr. Habiba Sarobi, or lone female Afghan Presidential nominee Khadija Ghaznawi.
Although women still face substantial obstacles to achieving a public voice and freedom by western standards, great strides have been made towards improving equality through access to educational opportunities and vocational training programs. Small-scale economic participation by women has grown in the last decade, giving women more legitimacy and power within their homes and local communities.
While the surge in training programs specifically designed for women has been instrumental, it is also important that international donors and Coalition Forces transition from treating women as a special interest group, and instead simply provide them with equal opportunities. As the majority of international forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan in the next 18 months, many humanitarian organizations are preparing departures along the same lines. The frameworks which are left behind for women’s empowerment must be seen as standard and expected, not special exceptions or entitlements.
As the author of this selection ponders at the end of her deployment to Afghanistan, sometimes it is impossible to know what knowledge is lacking before beginning operations in certain areas. These are Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.” It is with these variables in mind that Coalition Forces should continue to reach out to the women of Afghanistan, who make up more than 50% of the population after decades of warfare that whittled away at the male population, in an effort to develop an informed point of view to direct future assistive efforts.